Statements on Worker Justice Issues
The Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism Resolves to: Support legislation that requires employers to provide reasonable paid sick leave to employees to attend to their own health care and the health care of their families, in a manner sensitive to potential impacts on employers; urge our congregations across North America to engage in paid sick days campaigns in their local communities; and call upon our congregations and all arms of the Reform Movement to examine their employment and contracting practices reflecting the spirit of this resolution and set an example for their communities (Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, Resolution on Paid Sick Days, 2008).
“In response to the continuing disturbing allegations of unacceptable worker conditions at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly are united in their request that consumers of kosher meat evaluate whether it is appropriate to buy and eat meat products produced by the Rubashkin’s label.” (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly’s statement regarding Rubashkin’s meat products, 2008).
Labor in the Bimah: A Reflection by – Rabbi Brant Rosen, Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, Evanston, Illinois:
“In Exodus 1:14 the Torah describes the Egyptians enslavement of the Israelites thus: And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field; all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigor.
What does the Torah mean that the Israelites were made to serve ‘with rigor?’
According to the common understanding, this term refers to enforced work without limit, work without purpose or end – work in which a slave serves utterly at the whim of the slave master. Notably, once they have le Egypt, the Israelites’ experience of ‘rigorous service’ directly informs the way they are commanded to treat their own workers when they settle in their own land.
According to Deuteronomy 24:14: You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger…else he will cry to God against you and you will incur guilt.
In other words, ensuring the safety and dignity of workers is not merely one commandment among many – it is coded into the very DNA of the Torah’s most central narrative. The birth of the people Israel is rooted in a story of exploited laborers and their eventual journey to redemption. Indeed, in a very real sense, their essential mission is repeatedly framed as a conscious disavowal of the slave masters of Egypt.
Thus, the question the Torah places before us is quite clear: what is the nature of the society we seek to create? Will it be an Egypt or a Promised Land?
- Will we ensure that workers receive basic protections under the law – or will we seek only greater exploitation in service of the bottom line?
- Will we provide laborers with the dignity of livable wages and ad- equate benefits – or will we only see sanctity in greater and greater shareholder profits?
- Will we allow workers the right to organize and engage their employers in collective bargaining – or will we allow workers to be intimidated into collective silence and compliance?
The answer, as ever, is up to us.”
“All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits to decent working conditions, as well as to organize and join unions or other associations” (A Catholic Framework for Economic Life, A Statement of the U.S. Bishops, 1996).
“Employers have a responsibility to treat employees with dignity and respect. This should be reflected in employees’ remuneration, benefits, work conditions, job security, and ongoing job training” (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), Social Statement on Sufficient Sustainable Livelihood for All, 1999).
“The United Methodist Church demands that employers treat farm workers and their families with dignity and respect; and that corporate processors, food retailers, and restaurants take responsibility in proportion to the power they possess for the treatment of the farm workers in their supply chains; calls on the General Board of Church and Society, the General Board of Global Ministries, annual conferences, and local churches to support state and federal legislation that would strengthen the laws protecting farm workers’ rights and provide the funding necessary for adequate enforcement of laws protecting farm workers rights, health, and safety” (Rights of Farm Workers in the US, The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church, 2016).
Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of God be upon him, said, “Your servants/workers are your brothers whom God the most High has placed under your authority. Therefore, a person who has a brother under his authority, should feed him out of that which he eats himself and should dress him with the same kind of clothes which he wears himself; he should not assign work to him which is beyond his capacity, and if you do so, then help him in his work” (Bukhari collection, prepared by Hussam Ayloush, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations).
The Ven. Sevan Ross on the topic of wage theft:
“When I was a boy and asked my coal miner father one time too many for money, he got me a job as a “myrtle plugger.” I sat all day in a field of ground cover with a special tool and “plugged” one plant at a time from the ground into a “flat” – a large wooden box. Each plant took up a four-square-inch space. I saw immediately that I could fit between 50 and 60 plants into the box. Upon filling a flat I was to take it to the Yard Boss who was to “count” it and give me a fresh one to fill. I was to be paid five cents per flat. This was child labor, and it was in the early 1960s in Pennsylvania.
When I took up my first flat, the Yard Boss reached into the box and used his hand to squeeze my plants together to one side. They now filled 40 percent of the flat. He smiled, winked, grunted, and handed it back to me.
This was wage theft, and although I was only 10 years old, I knew it. I quit that “job” at the end of my first week. My father simply said, “Now you know what a union is for.”
I was too young to understand what my father meant, but I was developed enough to see that the yard boss did not see me as human in some important way. He regarded me as the “other” – as a tool like any other tool, to be used as needed for as long I held up to his purpose.
Many years later I heard a talk given during my priest training in which Yasutani Roshi, a well-known Japanese Zen Master, said these words:
“The fundamental problem for all humanity is that you believe that you are there and I am here.” This sums up how Buddhism casts a critical eye on the behavior of people – especially in commercial enterprises.
As long as we regard each other not as humans but as the “other,” we will suffer profound abuses in the workplace. Employers will steal their workers’ wages, either overtly or covertly. And all the while they will deny both to themselves and others that this is the case. Aer all, they are only employees. I — or we — happen to be management, and as such am responsible for the survival and the thriving of the organization. Except that the workers are the organization and a the against them is one against the group – and me too.
I’m sure that the Yard Boss was being stolen from in some way by his betters back in that myrtle field. He could not have invented the workplace abuse of a child all on his own. I’ll bet it went all the way to the top. Aer all, what happens at the top flows directly to the bottom in organizations. If “the other” is how we see individuals, we will guarantee they will see us this way also.
So from a Buddhist perspective it is not quite enough to say that we each are our brother’s keeper. We need to feel instead that we actually are our brother. And from this, fair treatment flows naturally. There is then what we Buddhists call Right Livelihood – mutually productive work, with everyone being treated fairly, everyone being treated Right.”
If there is a single common theme running throughout our Jewish tradition, it is that of social justice. Our scriptures teach us to support the widow, to extend our hands to the downtrodden. Our tradition demands that we “speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy (Proverbs 31:9).” As Jews, we have an obligation not only to feed the hungry but also to help those in need become self-sufficient (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah).
Our Torah also emphasizes the importance of a worker’s wages. “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer… but you must pay him his wages on the same day, for he is needy and urgently depends on it (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).” A similar statement appears in Leviticus, “You shall not defraud your neighbor, nor rob him; the wages of he who is hired shall not remain with you all night until the morning (Leviticus 19:13).” The Torah further expresses a commitment to economic justice in the remark, “If one hires a worker to work with straw and stubble and the worker says to him, “Give me my wages,” if the employer says, “take the results of your labor as payment,” we do not listen to him (Mishnah Bava Metziah 10:5).”
“In Catholic teaching, the principle of a living wage is integral to our understanding of human work. Wages must be adequate for workers to provide for themselves and their families in dignity. Because the minimum wage is not a living wage, the Catholic bishops have supported increasing the minimum wage over the decades.” (United States Council of Catholic Bishops, 2006).
Collective Worker Organizing
“Jewish leaders, along with our Catholic and Protestant counterparts have always supported the labor movement and the rights of employees to form unions for the purpose of engaging in collective bargaining and attaining fairness in the workplace. We believe that permanent replacement of striking workers upsets the balance of power needed for collective bargaining, destroys the dignity of working people, and undermines the democratic values of this nation” (Central Conference of American Rabbis, Workplace Fairness Resolution, 1993).
“Among the basic rights of the human person must be counted the right of freely founding labor unions. These unions should be truly able to represent the workers and to contribute to the proper arrangement of economic life. Another such right is that of taking part freely in the activity of these unions without risk of reprisal” (Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Second Vatican Council, 1965).
“The important role of union organizations must be admitted: their object is the representation of the various categories of workers, their lawful collaboration in the economic advance of society, and the development of the sense of their responsibility for the realization for the common good” (A Call to Action, encyclical of Pope Paul VI, 1971).
“The [Catholic] Church fully supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions. This is a specific application of the more general right to associate….No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably seen in this country, to break existing unions or prevent workers from organizing” (Economic Justice for All, a pastoral letter of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1986).
“We reaffirm our position that workers have the right to organize by a free and democratic vote of the workers involved. This right of organization carries the responsibility of union leadership to protect the rights of workers, to guarantee each member an equal voice in the operation of its organization, and to produce just output labors for income received.” (American Baptist Churches Resolution on Labor, 1981).
“Free collective bargaining has proved its values in our free society whenever the parties engaged in collective bargaining have acted in good faith to reach equitable and moral solutions of problems dealing with wages and working conditions. We do not support the opinion voiced in some quarrels that strikes should be made illegal.
To declare strikes illegal would be to deprive workers of their right to collective action and, even more seriously, would place in the hands of the government the power to force workers to remain on the job” (Discipline of the CME Church Social Creed, 1982).
“We believe in the right of laboring men to organize for protection against unjust conditions and to secure a more adequate share of the fruits of their toil. The right to organize implies the right to hold and wield power, which in turn implies responsibility for the manner in which this power is exercised” (Resolution on the Church and Labor, Disciples of Christ, 1938).
“We reaffirm the right and desirability of workers in the United States to organize and form unions…we decry the growing wage of anti-unionism mounting in the nation to day which asks people to forget the struggles that led to this form of negotiation as a just way to settle differences. We urge church people and others not to judge this issue on the basis of a particular case but rather on the basis of the fundamental principles involved” (A pastoral message from the Urban Bishops Coalition of the Episcopal Church, Labor Day, 1982).
“Justice demands that social institutions guarantee all persons the opportunity to participate actively in economic decision-making that affects them. All workers—including undocumented, migrant, and farm workers—have the right to choose to organize for the purposes of collective bargaining” (Principles of Vocation and Work, General Assembly Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1995).
“We support the right of public and private employees and employers to organize for collective bargaining into unions and the groups of their own choosing. Further, we support the right of both parties to protection in so doing, and their responsibility to bargain in good faith within the framework of the public interest” (Social Principles: The Economic Community, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016).
“The Unitarian Universalists Association urges its member congregations and individual Unitarian Universalists in the United States…to work specifically in favor of mechanisms such as:…reform of labor legislation and employment standards to provide greater protection for workers, including the right to organize and bargain collectively, protection from unsafe working conditions, and protection from unjust dismissal” (Working for a Just Economic Community, 1997).